How Prince pushed back against the fragmenting world of music – Vox

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Here’s how a Super Bowl halftime show traditionally works:

A band or a musician plays a 12-minute condensation of a Vegas revue. The set list usually consists of Predictable Hits, sometimes sandwiching a Brand New Song from Current Album They’re Hawking. The band performs for free to an audience of 90 million people, in exchange for which they see their iTunes sales skyrocket.

It’s a cynical affair, only sometimes brightened by an unexpected malfunction: Janet Jackson’s right breast or Katy Perry’s left shark.

When Prince took the stage midway through 2007’s Super Bowl XLI dressed in a teal suit and black do-rag, he seemed to be following the usual routine. Out came “Let’s Go Crazy,” and though it featured incredible, slashing guitar — that Telecaster wasn’t just a prop — one could start guessing the rest of the set list. Would we get “Kiss?” “When Doves Cry?” “1999?”

But then out came the Florida A&M marching band, and out came “Baby I’m a Star,” a non-single from Purple Rain. Prince segued into “Proud Mary” —more the Ike and Tina “nice and rough” arrangement, thank you — before dancing through a few verses of “All Along the Watchtower.”

Then, rather than playing one of the hits or a new track off a new album, he landed on Foo Fighters’ “Best of You.”

Was it a wink, a right back atcha to Dave Grohl’s band covering “Darling Nikki,” the song that two decades earlier had inspired Tipper Gore to go after the music industry? Did he just love the song?

Whatever his intent, the statement wasn’t, ‘I’m here to sell records.’

Rather, it was the case that he had been making throughout his career. As the rain started pouring down, Prince was making an argument for the interconnectedness of all music, and doing it at a time when the music industry continued a trajectory toward fragmentation.

It was, in its way, the ultimate declaration of polyamory from the rocker who most put sexuality — his, hers, ours, everybody’s — so front and center.

He loved it all.

Prince’s surprising covers didn’t begin or end with the Super Bowl.

His 1996 three-disc set, Emancipation, included covers of the Sylistics’ “Betcha By Golly Wow” and “La-La (Means I Love You)” by The Delfonics. On the same album, he also covered VH1 staples “I Can’t Make You Love Me” and “One of Us,” songs made most famous by Bonnie Raitt and Joan Osborne. A recent viral video — and given that Prince’s lawyers seemed to work overtime to keep his songs off of YouTube, it’s amazing that there was any video to go viral — captured his cover of Radiohead’s “Creep” from his 2008 Coachella set.

Prince’s love for Joni Mitchell was legendary — he dropped a “Help Me” nod into Sign O The Times‘ “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker,” and he later covered maybe Mitchell’s sexiest song, “A Case of You,” for a Joni tribute album.

It all felt in keeping with a songwriter who time and time again gave his songs to others to have massive hits

When Hurricane Katrina ravaged the gulf coast, he released a benefit single, “S.S.T.” The lyrics revealed what those initials stood for — and his enthusiasm for a certain British soul singer: “Which 1 is of value to U / the 1 depleting the oil supply / or the one that renews it? / and keeps the peace like the groove in Sade’s Sweetest Taboo.”

Just last month, he played back-to-back concerts in one day in Toronto — 55 songs! — and included Bill Withers’s “Use Me,” Bob Marley’s “Waiting in Vain,” and yes, Vince Guaraldi’s Peanuts theme, “Linus and Lucy.”

He also played a song that he would play again one week ago, in what would turn out to be his last live performance: David Bowie’s “Heroes.”

It all felt in keeping with a songwriter who time and time again gave his songs to others to have massive hits. “Manic Monday,” “Glamorous Life,” “Nothing Compares 2 U,” “I Feel for You.”

Boundaries didn’t matter much to the singer who always pushed the edge.

Shortly after hearing the news of Prince’s death, I drove up the coast of California, listening to my favorite of his albums, 1987’s Sign O’ The Times.

That album embodies his unique gift of blending all genres to then build something new, transcending mimicry to reach mastery.

Funk, soul, R&B, rock, even bits of folk. (On later albums, he would add reggae and rap into the mix.) It was all in that stew in a way no musician had done before, and no one has mastered since.

Maybe that’s why he was the ultimate crossover artist, who crossed all those boundaries. If there is no other artist — no other act — who had the respect and love from all across the musical spectrum the way he did, maybe it’s because he demonstrated that same love to them.

My freshman year of college, he released the glyph record, the one right before he changed his name to the symbol, the album with “Sexy MF,” “7,” and “The Morning Papers.”

You could walk down any dorm hallway at a given time on a Saturday night, and hear someone playing that disc. Black, white, Asian American, Latino — everyone loved that record. Everyone played it into the ground.

Little did we know, that wouldn’t change after we left our college on a hill.

I’m now 41 years old, and I still feel I’m discovering him.

For while some of his songs can be vehicles for nostalgia, taking you right back where you were when you heard “I Would Die 4 U” or “Another Lonely Christmas” or “Pop Life.” There are songs and albums where, like all the best art, coming to it at different points in your life offers new revelations. You can’t step into the same river twice.

He was the center of the Venn diagram, the area where all our circles overlapped.

In your 20s, your 30s, your 40s, if you were having a party and weren’t sure what people would dance to, you would put Prince on.

People would always dance to Prince. People will always dance to Prince.

You could always put Prince on at a party.

Politics seemed to matter little to him.

He referred to a man dying of a “big disease with a little name,” in the song “Sign O’ The Times” — the most forward reference to AIDS any A-list musician was making at that time. But more often, the politics remained oblique, like in the poverty ballad “Money Don’t Matter 2 Night” from 1992.

Instead, his politics, his worldview, came through in how he led his career.

I don’t just mean when he painted “SLAVE” on his face when he was trying to get out of his contract with Warner Bros. Records.

All of his backing bands — from the Revolution, to the New Power Generation, to the all-woman 3rdEyeGirl he formed in 2014 — were multi-racial.

Prince on stage.
Prince on stage.

Michael Ochs Archives via Getty Images

And from the very beginning, he counted women not just as backing singers, but also as instrumentalists within his bands, with many of whom enjoying solo careers of their own: Wendy and Lisa, Sheila E.

Aside from a Christine McVie here, a Maureen Tucker there, it’s stunning how few bands broke out of that boys club rut until Prince came along. It’s even more stunning how few have broken through since.

And if his songs were so often about sexuality … well, what could be more inclusive than sex? What’s the activity that since the dawn of time, IVF babies aside, has perpetuated the species?

Prince didn’t need to make political statements.

He was a political statement.

In 1981, the Rolling Stones invited Prince to open up for them for some dates, beginning with shows at the Los Angeles Coliseum.

He had already become a critical favorite, thanks to Dirty Mind, but he was still a year or two away from the commercial breakthrough of “Little Red Corvette” and the megastardom of Purple Rain.

The story goes that when Prince came out the first night, wearing little more than a trench coat, underwear, and suspenders, the rock-loving fans pelted him and his band with garbage. The band left the stage after five minutes.

The next night they tailored their set list to feature their more rocking songs. They were pelted again anyway. The band managed to make it through their five or six songs, but after leaving the stage, they immediately quit the Stones’ tour.

When I hear that story, I want to believe that the Stones fans in Los Angeles just weren’t ready for Prince’s music. That they weren’t just bigoted rock fans that we’ve all seen. Maybe they just heard his songs and thought, “disco.” Maybe.

But when I hear that story, I also want to laugh at the garbage-pelters, because they denied themselves the bragging rights to have seen the performer who was, along with Springsteen, the great live act of our times.

When I got a small boombox for my 11th birthday, Purple Rain was the cassette I bought at Music Plus. I had the cassette single for “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” — B-side was “Hot Thing” — before its album, Sign O’ The Times, ever came out.

When I went through a bad breakup in Seattle in 1996, I dug deeper, buying all the back catalog I didn’t own.

There weren’t a lot of parties that year. There wasn’t a lot of dancing.

But there was a lot of Prince.

But I only saw Prince twice. Neither show was at the peak of his stardom.

In 2004, I saw him at Staples Center, as part of a tour in support of his comeback record, Musicology, where ticket-buyers found a copy of the new album under their seats.

We had the worst seats in the house, the last row of the top section of the basketball arena. It didn’t matter. It was a great time. It wasn’t revolutionary, it was the hits, the new songs, but it was a fun, good show.

What I remember most from that night was the solo acoustic set, in the middle of the show.

He sat, alone with a guitar, on a small stage in the center of the arena.

He played pieces of favorites — I remember “Pink Cashmere” — and he joked and joshed with the audience like we were old friends.

There was something familiar about it, and I couldn’t place it until my drive home.

And then I remembered what I recognized: It was Elvis’s NBC comeback special from 1968.

That was when Elvis broke up his larger numbers — that probably pointed toward the “Also Sprach Zarathustra” Vegas jumpsuit bombast to come — with an intimate, acoustic set in the round with his old band mates from Sun days, Scotty Moore and Bill Black, as they played a medley of the songs that made Elvis a star, joking and joshing as they did it.

I was convinced: that’s exactly what Prince was doing, drawing a clear parallel with the King. Only, the audience … we were Scotty and Bill.

I remember better the show I saw during his residency at the Los Angeles Forum in late April 2011.

And maybe because unlike the Staples show, which seemed like the well-oiled machine of a wildly talented veteran, another stop on a traveling carnival, the Forum show instead felt like a gift, a valentine, to our city.

He had only announced the shows a week before. (Why? He was Prince! There didn’t need to be any reason why!) He started by announcing one concert, then a day or two later, a few more, and by the end, he would play 21 nights across Los Angeles, including 16 at the Forum.

The shows were chock-full of guest stars. Stevie Wonder opened up some shows. Larry Graham — former bassist for the Family Stone and the friend who brought Prince into the Jehovah’s Witnesses — opened others. The night I went, the ageless Sheila E. opened. And the great majority of the tickets for the shows, all except for the VIP tickets right by the stage, were sold for $25.

Almost every seat in the house: 25 bucks. He could have charged much more. He didn’t.

I saw the second show of the residency. And because of that, I’d had the benefit of hearing the tip: Stay for the encores. Do not leave until you’re sure there are no encores. Even if the lights have gone on at the arena. Stay.

He played a three hour set: hits, deep cuts, covers, jams.

I remember being again stunned by his guitar playing. He was so good at everything else — singing, songwriting, dancing, being his crazy self — that we so rarely talk about how phenomenal a guitar player he was.

Think of that: probably the fourth skill in his toolbox, and he was one of the 10 greatest guitar players of all time. One of the only ones of the last 30 years where even if you hear just three seconds of a lick, you instantly know it’s him.

I remember when the main set was done, and after a couple of encores, when the lights went up, fans telling other fans: Don’t leave yet. There’s going to be more.

They were right. The lights went back off, and there were more encore sets. Maybe three or four of them. By the end of the night — could it have been five hours? — as the fans ushered out the doors of that aging arena, we all looked blissed out, smiling dumbly at each other, strangers in on something special.

I remember looking around the Forum that night. I have never been to a concert anywhere that was as diverse as that concert was. No, I’ve lived in Los Angeles for all but seven years of my life: I don’t think I’ve ever been to anywhere in LA that was as diverse as that concert was. Black, white, Latino, Asian American. Old, young. Gay, straight. Everyone happy, everyone dancing, everyone having a blast.

That’s what his music could do.

And yes, all in the city that almost 30 years before had pelted him with trash as he opened up for the world’s greatest rock ‘n’ roll band.

As weird as he was — as much as he seemed always cloaked in mystery and myth, more than any other musician I could think of, he united us.

You could always put Prince on at a party.

More than any other video I saw posted across social media feeds Thursday — the “Creep” cover, the Super Bowl set — the one I kept seeing again and again was the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame performance in 2004.

Prince was being enshrined, getting in his first year on the ballot. His inductee class included several mainstays of classic rock radio: Bob Seger, Jackson Browne, Traffic, ZZ Top. And, less than three years after he died of a brain tumor, George Harrison was inducted for his solo career.

As part of the banquet celebrating the inductees, always featuring an all-star lineup playing the inductees’ greatest hits, Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne were organizing a tribute to their pal, the quiet Beatle.

Before the rest of the band is done, he frees himself from his guitar strap, tosses the Telecaster to a roadie in front of him, and just struts off the stage

The way I’ve always heard it, Petty and Lynne included Steve Winwood as part of the band, but they wouldn’t let a game Prince join in the tribute. Like somehow he wasn’t good enough to stand with Jeff Lynne, Zeppo Wilbury.

At the last minute, someone at the Rock Hall realized, for the love of God, put Prince in there. They thankfully relented.

I’ve never understood why they played “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” a song that, after all, wasn’t a song from Harrison’s solo career, a song featuring not Harrison on the guitar solo but Eric Clapton.

And for the first half of the Rock Hall performance, it’s exactly what you would expect or fear: a droning, stoned-out, boring cover.

Then you see someone. Off to the right, in a red … fedora? Cowboy hat? Sombrero? Squint and you can recognize him: tiny Prince, strumming guitar, off to the side, hidden from view.

And then: It’s his turn to solo. And almost immediately, he wails, playing one of the best solos I’ve ever seen.

Dhani Harrison, George’s son, playing with the band that night, has an enormous grin on his face, like it’s exactly how he’d want his dad to be remembered.

Then something happens. Prince doesn’t stop.

Petty and Lynne keep trying to wrap the song up — you can hear Steve Ferrone the drummer start to bring it down — but Prince won’t stop playing.

The solo gets crazier and crazier, and Prince looks over to Petty and Lynne during the song — I swear, you can see this in the video — and he looks at them as if to say, LIKE HELL I DON’T BELONG ON THIS STAGE.


And then, after what feels like minutes of this, he allows the song to wind down.

And before the rest of the band is done, he frees himself from his guitar strap, tosses the Telecaster to a roadie in front of him, and just struts off the stage.

Apparently, Petty and Lynne hadn’t heard. They heard now.

No one kept Prince from a party.

Michael Oates Palmer lives in Venice, California. He serves on the Board of Directors of the Writers Guild of America, West.

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How Prince pushed back against the fragmenting world of music – Vox